Mickey's Assignment Desk goes goo-goo.

Political commentary and more.
Jan. 3 2002 5:11 PM

Mickey's Assignment Desk goes goo-goo.

1. Safe at Any Speed: To the surprise of commentators (including this one), Congress has failed to pass a "stimulus bill." It also didn't pass a big farm bill, a big energy bill, and a big insurance bill. Ron Brownstein of the L.A. Times blames a deep, ideological gulf between the parties: "Republicans and Democrats remain so divided about government's proper role that it will be difficult for them to reach productive compromises on many big domestic issues." But wait a minute—are the parties really more divided about the role of government than they were, say, during Ronald Reagan's first term? Maybe something else is to blame. Here's a suspect—gerrymandering, the process of drawing congressional district lines so as to reap political advantage.

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The argument is this: Both parties have used the line-drawing that followed 2000 census to pad the victory margins of their incumbents, giving them "safe" seats. As a result, fewer and fewer congressmen fear losing re-election. But fear of losing is usually the reason legislation gets passed.

Think about the endgame dynamic in the typical congressional session when (as now) each party has a shot at winning control of the House or Senate. That battle for control is, in itself, a zero sum game. If a bill helps the Republican chances of winning a majority, it by definition hurts the Democrats, and vice versa. Were this zero-sum game the only game in town, we'd rarely see bipartisan agreement, since any particular bill would help either one party or the other.

But there's another game being played, namely the battle of each individual congressperson to keep his or her seat, no matter which party has a majority. Typically, laws get passed when this second Incumbent Re-Election Calculus overwhelms the zero-sum Party vs. Party calculus—as in "Yikes! Who cares who's Speaker—if we don't pass a stimulus bill the voters are going to boot me!"

It's this incumbent-protecting logic that gets short-circuited by gerrymandering. Why worry about getting the boot if, thanks to clever line-drawing, you have a reliable 65-35 margin in your district? Instead, you can go along with your party's efforts to get a congressional majority—a battle for control that hinges on the increasingly tiny number (currently as low as 30) of competitive seats, which are typically "open" seats where there's no incumbent at all. Who wins theses seats depends on which party's broad themes and issues have more appeal. So the congressional endgame becomes more of an attempt to create "issues" that will win these open seats.

Each piece of legislation is a pawn in this zero-sum strategizing—and passing the legislation can't help both parties. The stimulus bill couldn't help both the Democrats and Republicans win control—indeed, it's pretty clear that the Democrats would prefer that the bill fail so they can have the "issue" of Bush's mismanagement of the economy. When this sort of zero-sum Party vs. Party game predominates, not only are the chances of a deal reduced, but the party that doesn't want the bill is encouraged to adopt a relatively extreme position that will highlight its campaign theme (e.g., "help workers, not corporations") rather than open a path to muddy compromise. Any seeming concessions tend to be false, theatrical efforts designed mainly to pin blame for failure on the enemy.

Some pieces of legislation are best left unpassed—and the "stimulus package" may be one of them, as Brownstein argues. But, in general, do we really think passing laws, in the Constitution's already-cumbersome scheme, should be made even more difficult? Wasn't it only a few years ago that the voters were complaining about gridlock? Well, in a country divided fairly evenly between the parties, safe seats = gridlock. (Gerrymandering also robs the voters of a sense of control, since most now have no chance of changing their congressman. But that's a separate issue.) 

Assigned to: Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post; Norman Ornstein of Roll Call. Do it with numbers and you get tenure!

2. A Fed for Fiscal Policy: One worthy "stimulus" idea that gained favor at the end of last year's Congress was temporarily cutting the FICA, or payroll, tax. A FICA cut, by reducing withholding from paychecks, would quickly put cash in the hands of consumers. Unlike a cut in top income tax rates, it would be weighted in favor of lower-income Americans, the group most likely to spend rather than save. But Congress (perhaps for the reason given in Assignment No.1 above) was unable to act in time. Now it's too late—with a recovery looking imminent, an artificial boost in consumer demand might only be inflationary.

This is a chronic institutional problem—Congress just can't move fast enough to counter the business cycle. The obvious solution is to empower some independent, non-partisan body to temporarily cut payroll taxes, by one or two percentage points, just as we empower the Federal Reserve Board to cut interest rates. Congress could even give this fiscal lever to Fed itself, although it could also set up a separate agency in order not to put too much power in Greenspan's hands. There's big wonk fun to be had figuring out how this plan might work (e.g., the tax would have to be temporarily raised later to make up for the lost money), who would benefit, and why it's really a terrible idea in the first place.

Assigned to: Robert Samuelson (Newsweek); Jonathan Chait (New Republic). Remember, you have to build it up before you knock it down!

3. Squeezing Ralph: My mother used to give money to Naderite organizations like Public Citizen. She doesn't anymore. Why? She blames Ralph Nader's third-party candidacy for Gore's loss. My mother is not that unusual; there must be hundreds of thousands who are doing the same thing. Are Naderite organizations suffering financially? Immediately following the 2000 election, there was some talk that contributions had dropped off. A few prominent trial lawyers (formerly big Nader funders) vowed to shut their wallets, and Public Citizen actually sent out an extraordinary mailing distancing itself from Nader. But what's happened since? Is Nader's institutional legacy suffering because of his presidential, party-rearranging ambitions? Hard financial info will be difficult to get—Naderite groups are notoriously secretive—but that's why they pay investigative journalists.

Assigned to: Michael Isikoff (Newsweek); David Barstow (New York Times).

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